HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) announced Thursday that prayers and invocations will return to the House and be delivered before sessions begin.
The announcement comes more than a month after a federal court sided with Turzai, saying it found no constitutional violations.
It’s been an issue for years for proverbial “nonbelievers,” having been barred from speaking or giving their version of a “prayer” before the House starts each session.
Turzai’s policy has been to give only those who profess a belief in God or a higher power a chance to give an invocation. It’s a stance that the Independence Law Center and the Pennsylvania Family Institute agree with.
“That really isn’t a prayer if there isn’t a higher power that you are praying to in the first place,” said Randall Wenger, a lawyer with the center whose brief on the matter was used by the court in their opinion. “The Legislature said, ‘no, look we are looking for opening prayers, not inspirational speeches’.”
Wenger said this debate is a matter of seeking divine intervention, which he feels inherently excludes atheists and nonbelievers.
“We’re seeking help from God, not seeking help from good speeches,” Wenger said.
Last month, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled two to one against nonbelievers, saying prohibiting them from giving an opening invocation does not violate the constitution’s Establishment Clause. That clause in the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion by Congress.
Wenger said Thursday this is about returning to tradition.
“The Pennsylvania House should be able to do what the Pennsylvania House has traditionally done,” he said.
Prayer before the house made headlines in March this year when Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton) used Jesus’ name more than a dozen times during her invocation, which happened just moments after the House swore in its first Muslim member, Movita Johnson-Harrell.
It was seen as political and inappropriate by many. Turzai even reached for her arm and cut her off mid-sentence.
Wenger believes prayer is needed now more than ever.
“We need God to intervene and give guidance to our leaders,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Non-Believers group provided this statement about the prayer’s return:
“There are also those in the Atheist, Secular Humanist, and Nones community — that think it is a violation of the 1st Amendment, church-state separation, and a waste of taxpayer dollars to spend any time praying while congress is in session or on official time. The government officials, we elect, should be doing the people’s work. No one said they could not pray and believe on their own time. But when we elect them, they are on our time.” – PA Non-Believers President, Josh CruverKibi
Turzai has not said who will lead the next invocation when the House returns Oct. 21.